by David McLeod
The Book of Quatrains
When Larry and I had first arrived, we'd approached the Valley of Valeus from the northeast. We had not seen the monastery nestled in the southern mountains. Eventually, we heard about it, but didn't give it much thought. Later, however, Reagan became insistent that we visit.
By now, I'd become confident in Reagan's wisdom and learned to listen to him. First, though, we had 80 boys and their dragons to quarter and provide for. Reagan's father offered the solution for that problem.
"Sumpter, that village, there?" He pointed toward the village that had grown up around the flax mill at the northwest corner of the valley. "They don't run the mill, anymore. No flax is grown in that corner of the valley, and won't be for another ten-year or so. The fields need to rest; the mill is idle; the village is half empty."
We took two of the boys and their dragons with us: one to transport Reagan and one to transport his father. Minky was so insistent, that we took him, as well. Larry was strapped in front of me; Minky was strapped in front of Larry.
The old mill was an ideal site for a dragon-riders' barracks. The building was huge, with open rooms that had been used to dry flax. They would serve as refectory and sleeping quarters, workshops and school. The vats once used for soaking the flax were suitable for hot tubs, and the aqueducts that fed them could easily be tapped for showers. The Village Master was quite excited about the proposal we made, and agreed to construct toilets and trestle tables, as well as the other furniture that we will need. Within a day, several sets of parents arrived to handle cooking and housekeeping.
A memory surfaced—one I thought I'd lost. The null-A books of A. E. Van Vogt, I thought. When people of intelligence and good thoughts see a need, they will find a way to fulfill it. Without government regulations, without government coercion, without the superstition of religion, but with only the good acts of good people.
Once the boys were taken care of, and placed under the supervision of Reagan's father and the elders of the village of Sumpter, Larry and I felt free to visit the monastery. Eddie and his dragon accompanied us to carry Reagan. Minky pouted, but we promised we'd return and that he could ride again upon a dragon.
Before we left, and for a reason I didn't understand, I invited Haley and his dragon, Methmet. Something about a wing of three dragons seemed right. It wasn't until much later that I understood that.
The food at the monastery was scant and bland, and the water was cold. The dragons caught our feelings, and laughed at our consternation—there was no shortage of mountain goats in the crags above the monastery. I was beginning to learn about dragons' sense of humor.
Despite its austerity—perhaps because of it—the monastery was a place of learning. The men and boys divided their time between tending garden plots carved into the mountains, and transcribing texts so ancient the writing was nearly illegible. (I've not mentioned before, but whatever whoever taught us to speak this language also taught us to read it. Reading and writing are skills unknown outside monasteries or among noble families.)
Larry laid a heavy book on the table with enough force to raise a cloud of dust. Not from the table, but from the book.
"Sun Tzu," he said. "We're not the first people from Earth to come here. Sun Tzu beat us." He paused. "At least, his Art of War got here. Look."
He opened the book and pointed.
I read. "Quatrain 122.
As a long battle dulls a sword,
The same long battle dulls the mind.
Find victory swift or move away
To battle seek another day."
"That's really awful poetry," I said.
"That's because you're thinking it in Common," Larry said. "The Elvish is not quite that bad."
I looked at the poem again, and then at the notes, below it. "Once forces engage, if victory is long in coming, men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped."
"That, my Captain, is straight out of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. In fact . . ." Larry flipped a dozen pages, seemingly at random. "Look at this one."
Light makes might
The sky holds the light.
The earth provides refuge
For he who knows the quatrains.
"Um, even worse poetry," I said.
"But it's the five constant factors which govern war: moral law, heaven, earth, the commander—that's you—and method and discipline—that's what the quatrains offer. It's Sun Tzu Maxims 1-3 and 4."
It didn't take me long to understand.
"We have to have this book." I said. "Ask the Senior, offer him anything within reason," I said.
The Senior gladly parted with the book after our promise to care for it and to return it after the war was over. He chuckled a bit at that. It was long before I understood the reason for his laughter. The war had not yet begun, and past wars tended to last for centuries.
Larry and I sketched for the senior what we knew of the geography of World. "The sea lies east of Carter, although we don't know how far, nor how big it is. Elvenholt, also, extends eastward to the sea, and is bordered on the north by a tropical rain forest. Arcadia extends south to an ice-covered mountain range. We don't know for sure if there are people south of that, but the stories say if they are, they're usually evil.
"Arcadia and Elvenholt's western border are these mountains—the ones we are in—although I don't think anyone in Elvenholt thought they were as extensive as we found them to be."
"We know of the sea," the senior said. "But only of the one that lies west of us." He reached into a drawer and removed a necklace of cowrie shells. "My great grandfather, a dragonrider in the last war, brought this back from the western battles. It had been given to him by a boy he met—a boy who lived on the shore of the sea. A boy with skin copper from the sun, and eyes as deep green as the sea, itself. Their story has been told in my family for generations.
"I wonder," he mused, "I wonder if we will meet his people in this war, and if they will be friends or enemies." He moved to put the necklace back in the drawer, and then stopped. "No. Will you take this, please, and wear it. Perhaps you will meet his people, and perhaps it will bring amity between us and them."
I was startled at the generosity of the offer, but knew it was sincere, and that the old cleric meant all he said. I took the necklace and handed it to Larry to put on my neck.
The senior unrolled a scroll and weighed it down with odd bits of crystal from his workbench. The scroll was a map. The Valley of Valeus was nestled in the top center, among ranges of sharp mountains. Six of these ranges separated the valley from the sea to the west. Eight ranges—the ones we had crossed—separated the valley from the edge of the scroll, to the east. Using the length of the valley as a scale, I estimated that the sea was more than 4000 miles to the west, and that the edge of the eastern edge of the map was nearly 5000 miles away. About 6000 miles south of the valley, the topography changed to foothills, piedmont, and then desert.
"My great-grandfather's lover lived here," the senior said, and pointed to a narrow strip of coast. He pointed to the south. "Desert warriors have in the past been both allies and enemies in the fight between Light and Dark. Pastoral peoples, not unlike us, live in the foothills and piedmont. They are mostly allies. Trolls nest throughout the mountains; they are always allied with evil." He paused, and thought for a moment.
"There are stories of people who tried to recruit trolls to the Light. There are no stories of their success."
Larry and I spent the rest of the afternoon with the senior, but learned little more.
The dragons' memories are long, but frustratingly incomplete. They remember wars—countless wars—but they don't remember individual battles or tactics. They remember traveling great distances—to oceans and deserts, to ice-covered mountains and to islands or continents across the seas—but they don't remember where these places are, or were.
I am glad, in a way, that their memories are so selective, for I intend to teach them all the aerobatic maneuvers and fighter tactics Larry and I remember, and I don't want those to fall into the wrong hands because I remember what Dakota said, "Always before riders mean war . . ."
The boys of the Dragon Corps fell quickly into a routine. The dragons took off before dawn, ranging for miles to feed. I was amazed that they could live on so little food until I realized that the majority of their energy came from the magic they gathered as they beat their wings. The square-cube law seemed to apply on World—to everything except dragons, that is.
While the dragons fed, their riders' mornings were spent in a classroom where Larry and I taught lessons in aerobatic maneuvers and formation flying, and where Reagan read the quatrains. Before the boys' eyes glazed, we would take recess to the exercise yard for practice with swords—real ones, not the bamboo sticks we first saw being used.
"There may come a time," I had told them. "When you must dismount from your dragon and meet your enemy face to face." I had difficulty conceiving such a situation; however, it was described in Quatrain 150, and therein lies my confusion.
The body of the quatrains seemed both logical and truthful. Veritas in unus; veritas in omnibus (true in one thing; true in all things) isn't a natural law. In fact, it's a technique for pulling the wool over people's eyes; however, it can be a reasonable guide, as long as one is careful, and I was willing to accept the quatrains as they were written—at least for the moment.
After the dragons returned from feeding, afternoons were spent flying. Riders told their dragons what they'd learned in the morning. Larry, Dakota, and I would demonstrate maneuvers. The riders and their dragons would practice, while Larry and I watched. We were looking for more than technique; we were also looking for leaders. Quatrain 33 had reinforced what we already knew: eighty dragons and their riders is too great a span of control for one person.
There was no question in anyone's mind that I was the leader—the commander, in any case—of the Valerian Dragon Corps. I was worried that Larry might feel, odd at best, and useless at worst, because of, not despite, his unique status as my boyfriend. I needn't have worked.
Larry broached the subject himself. It had been on the first night after the dragons returned to the valley and selected their riders. We had found one another among the crowd of exhausted and exhilarated boys, and gone outside. The stars and two of the Bright Travelers gave us enough light to find a bench. We sat, side by side with arms around one another, and looked at the stars.
"I can almost believe they are our stars," Larry said. "There—" He pointed. "That is The Hunter—and almost like our Orion.
"And there: it's in the wrong place and does not point to the north star, but the Farmer's Wain is very much like the Big Dipper of our world."
"Did you know that the Big Dipper was also known as St. John's Wain?" I asked.
"Of course, doofus," Larry said, and softened his words with a kiss. "How many times must have you told me that, before!"
I remembered the nights, snuggling in sleeping bags zipped together, in the Wyoming countryside, and sighed.
"I do not like being a commander, while you have a lesser job," I said.
There was a long silence before Larry replied. "Paul, I love you, but sometimes you really are a doofus.
"You are exactly what these boys need. You are the leader.
"I am the auxiliary. I've always been." He hushed what I was going to say. "Even when we started the LGBT group in J'ville, even though I stood in front of them, you were the leader. I am your voice, I am your avatar, but you are the leader."
"Be not where/they seek you./Pick the place/they meet you." Reagan read, and looked expectantly at the boys.
"Don't appear where you are expected; surprise the enemy by appearing where you are not expected," one boy said.
"And, pick the battlefield where you will have the advantage: height, concealment," another added.
Sun Tzu, Maxim 24, Larry thought. Attack the enemy where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. "Very good," he said.
"Numbers count/ when they count… The rest has been torn away," Reagan said.
"Let's see if we can understand it, anyway," I said.
"Numbers count—if you outnumber your enemy, that's good," one of the riders said.
" . . . when they count means not always, though," another objected.
"When would it not be good to outnumber your enemy?" I prompted. There was a pause, then, one of the boys spoke.
"The quatrains don't all apply just to dragons; maybe some of them don't apply to dragons, at all. What if you were a ground army defending a narrow valley or a pass? The fighting spot—the front like you called it—would be small. You'd need only a few soldiers. And some reinforcements. The rest of your army could be doing something else. If they were bunched up behind the front, they'd be an easy target for enemy dragons." The boy sat back. On his face and in his mind I saw pride compete with uncertainty.
Pride won, and he beamed when I said that his was an excellent answer, and then told the story of Thermopylae, and of the battle of Muc Wa, that inspired the movie, Go Tell the Spartans. There wasn't a dry eye in the room when I quoted the inscription carved into the rock at the pass at Thermopylae:
That here, obedient to their laws,
I was not entirely happy about that. I was teaching these boys that they might have to willingly sacrifice their lives for something greater than themselves, greater than their lives. Even the knowledge that they were immortal—that they would be reborn—was insufficient entirely to satisfy me that what I was doing was Right. I was beginning to understand that these boys—and probably Larry and I—would be fighting the same battles for eternity. In a way, that gave me comfort; in a way, it frightened me.
A dragon is not an airplane. That is a tautology, a self-evident truth; it is axiomatic; and, it is a real problem when it comes to teaching aerobatics, the maneuvers I hoped would give us an edge when we met enemy dragons. We didn't have to worry about maintaining fuel or oil supply to the engine when flying inverted, but we did have to worry about riders staying on their dragons. Leather harnesses took care of that problem—and the dragons seemed to know how to design the harnesses.
The real problem was that dragons don't have ailerons, elevators, flaps, or rudders. The three vanes at the end of their tail, arranged in a triangular shape, worked primarily to keep the tail straight behind them and out of the way during level flight. The dragons didn't have the muscles in their tails to move this "rudder" around. We did learn how to move it by magic, but it had little effect on flight. If we moved it to the left or right, it would put the dragon into an eight-minute turn; but we needed much sharper maneuvers than that.
The solution, as Larry and I had learned when we taught Dakota the modern Immleman turn, was magic. But, as we learned long ago, magic doesn't do anything without conscious volition guiding it. (There are stories about people dreaming something and affecting magic, but apparently the brain during sleep isn't strong enough to do much.) Without someone thinking and controlling magic, it doesn't do anything. No matter how strong it is, it isn't dangerous. Which is fortunate, because we gather magic all the time just by moving through the field that is everywhere on World. And, of course, we exchange what we gather with other boys during sex.
"Less is more; When you're sure; Send by flights; Of three or four." Reagan looked up from the scroll. "That's Quatrain eighty."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"Don't send more dragons than are needed," one of the boys said.
"Don't send anyone in alone," another, perhaps more cautious than the first, added.
I waited until the discussion had died down, and then nodded. "When you're sure you have air superiority, when you aren't likely to face enemy dragons, when your objective is to harass the enemy, then use multiple flights of three or four dragons. That's enough for mutual support and the enemy may think you are stronger than you are if he is subject to many attacks at many places at once. What's next?"